Earlier this month I learned of the passing of John Goodenough, the principal inventor of the Lithium-ion battery. I have had some time to think about the impact of his work and wanted to reflect on that impact and a well lived life of 100 years.
First, I have never met Dr. Goodenough, however, I cannot think of any single person that has had more effect on my professional life. At the University of Idaho, I first encountered and began to think about ‘advanced’ energy systems and the applications these new devices could have on all of our lives. I was already in possession of my first SONY lithium battery in my buggy (VAIO laptop). I remember reading all of the new rules on how to treat this battery versus NiCad batteries and thought ‘what a pain’ this is. But I quickly began to appreciate the extra run time and lighter weight of the device over others.
Why do I mention SONY by name here? Dr. Goodenough was the inventor of the modern advanced battery utilizing a Lithium cathode and a mixture of Cobalt Oxide to create a stable mixture with a comparative voltage difference from a graphite anode counterpart. A collaborative partner, Akira Yoshino from SONY, helped commercialize and scale production of this new type of battery. Dr. Goodenough’s work was built on prior work from M. Stanley Wittingham (I definitely looked up these other names and I want to note that with almost any scientific invention so much work goes into the groundswell that turns into innovation and discovery). All three were honored with the 2019 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their contributions to the development of the lithium-ion battery.
But back to Dr. Goodenough and a look at what this particular invention did for an industry and the promise for the world. A timeline:
1970's: First Research and Working Lithium Cell
This cell was really a very complex creation of exotic blends of electrodes and the first in-depth understanding of the process that enables a functioning two electrode-based battery today: intercalation. It utilized a titanium disulphide anode and a lithium aluminum cathode.
1980’s: Stability and Safety
Another decade passed before Dr. Goodenough began to use his lithium cobalt oxide mix to replace the prior aluminum-rich anode. It is well worth noting that there are many different blends of lithium batteries today with various sub-mixtures of specific molecular blends as well. The voltage difference created was also a big deal for Lithium based cells. They have a higher voltage than a lead acid battery, or NiCad. That means you need fewer cells to reach voltages capable of powering new electronics that are now reaching the market. It is this higher cell voltage and the full charge to discharge range that creates some issues in a few more decades. But issues create opportunities and that’s our future contribution.
1990’s: Commercialization and Carbon
It takes time for a research paper to circulate—it takes even longer to take a research lab innovation to commercialization and deliver that product to the public. That’s where SONY comes in. Further advancements were made including additional research into a stable and safe organic electrolyte—the commonly liquid potion that allows ions to move between electrodes freeing or trapping electrons. SONY was able to determine that performance trade-offs in electrodes would yield a reliable battery cell with exceptional weight, size, and power improvements over alkaline batteries. But Lithium would prove to be a temperamental teenager.
B doesn’t stand for babysitting but maybe it should. The advantages of lithium were clear and tweaks and changes to anodes, electrolytes, current collectors, and manufacturing technologies saw continued improvement in the primary areas of performance: life cycle, energy density, power density, temperature performance, and weight/volume. But this new battery cell also needed some additional attention—a Battery Management System.
Our Chief Technology Officer Dave DeMuro knows this better than most and was likely the first person in the US to identify the Lithium Ion battery as the future for consumer electronics when he was with Motorola. In the early 1990s, after receiving a SONY phone from Japan for competitive analysis, he noticed the phone was powered by two lightweight cells as opposed to the usual five heavy NiCad cells. Dave and his team quickly adopted the cell technology, developed a proprietary BMS, and introduced the MicroTAC Elite™–the first high volume cell phone utilizing LiIon batteries.
As Dave tells it, “Those first cells really represented a breakthrough in technology that only comes along once or twice in a century. Subsequent improvements in energy density, along with reductions in cost, have enabled Li-Ion batteries to find application in an ever widening range of products including power tools, appliances, lawn equipment, and now electric vehicles.”
Indeed, while chemistry leads the primary characteristics of the cell itself, it is the intelligence of the management system that keeps it safe, and the driving force behind mass adoption.
That experience developing the circuitry to protect and improve this new battery’s performance and life was what led him to the world’s most valuable company… Apple, Inc. While there, he pioneered the crucial part of these loved devices: the battery. His work can be found in billions of devices around the globe and maybe one or two in your hands, pockets, backpacks, ears and on desks as you read this.
My professional journey with the lithium battery began after reading a WIRED magazine article covering a new startup founded by Martin Eberhard. That startup? Tesla Motors. This article detailed the true potential of the lithium battery and my passion for renewable fuel. The Tesla Roadster did what the EV1 from GM couldn’t do—make electric vehicles really perform. A chassis from Lotus, the performance that could beat most vehicles on the road at the time and, while expensive generally, it didn’t fall into a super car price range.
It was the community’s reaction that drew my attention and the concept of range anxiety was born in the comments thread from that article. That was also the beginning of my professional goal of making an advanced battery perform like fuel. No easy task; although, a younger Alex certainly believed it could be simple. Spoiler Alert: it was not easy.
I reached out to my college friend, James Wagoner, and began to talk his ear off about how a modular swappable battery system could likely solve the range issues of electric vehicles and that these batteries, while sitting waiting to be used, could likely even be assets on the grid to offload extra renewable energy generation and supply from the grid and potentially provide power to facilities where they are stored. That was 2007.
We set about learning as much as we could beyond our few circuits classes and spending all the extra money we could on purchasing batteries, and converting our first internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicle to electric. Our thesis: a modular battery system with strings in series and banks in parallel could drive a vehicle and extend those miles, but once those batteries are depleted it could take hours to recharge - unless you could physically swap them from the vehicle with fully recharged packs and continue on your way.
Over the next three years we continued to refine the concept, advance the planned product and test, test, test our prototype vehicle. Those efforts lead to recognition in 2009 as a leader in the clean energy space as a top innovator by GreenBeat. From that press a Tier 1 auto integrator in Europe reached out and informed us they had a contract with a government that specified modular removable batteries and they had only been able to identify two companies:Better Place, a well-funded, massively marketed single battery swapping platform, and small hand-swappable battery modules from a scrappy startup in Idaho.
While we were selected as a superior option for the 12,000 electric taxis based on our scalability, the timing was dreadfully awful.
2010: A Market Crash and a Price Slide
The European financial crisis closed a window on the first phase of electric vehicles, at least in the United States. While a few vehicles made it to market it really was a massively limited deployment. One thing to keep in mind is the price of lithium batteries was on average $1.25 per watt hour. That might not mean a lot, but research was published that stated mass adoption of lithium batteries for vehicles would not take place until a magical $0.10 per watt hour.
The waiting game began. James and I had to shutter our modular swappable battery company with no near-term market available and no capital willing to keep the idea alive. I continued my career in product development and design, and James his professional engineering and facilities work. Obviously the interest in batteries didn’t completely leave us and when we found ourselves living in Portland in 2015, we revisited our concept with a spin and a clear target to take down—the combustion generator.
What comes to mind when you consider a generator? Most of us probably think about tailgating, camping, farmers markets, maybe not immediately apparent but food trucks, and then temporary events like marathons, fun-run races, and music festivals. But generators are everywhere, nearly ubiquitous if you train your ear to what you typically try to ignore. A generator can sit for hours, days, weeks (often longer) with its stored fuel, and it may have an issue and potentially fail or even catch fire. But what it has is the ability to add more fuel relatively easily. That relative ease was brought to you from over 100 years of advancing fuel through standards, refinement, infrastructure to store and transport it and delivery methods so you can safely refill and store a highly flammable liquid.
2016: How Can a Battery Become Fuel?
In principle, a battery stores potential energy just like a combustion fuel source but in practice this is very different. One great advantage to a battery is that it can be ‘filled’ from all types of sources as long as that can be controlled. Where we began to innovate beyond our prior design was integrating the connection between the battery and the power conversion device. At the time there was only one major portable power company and they called their systems “Battery Generators”. We were never fans of that. We chose to call our solution a “Power Station”. And where we differentiated was the ability for the customer to choose the amount of power output (the generation size) and their runtime by adding additional batteries when the device goes out into the world or, just like a traditional generator, add more fuel by swapping those batteries and keeping your device running.
We filed for Intellectual Property protection as we were the only company manufacturing a product that allowed you to easily change/add/swap/exchange/reconfigure your power station. We were granted that IP in 2020 along with other IP coverage. So what’s the big deal with adding batteries to each other? You’ll recall a few decades ago when Dr. Goodenough finally created a stable Lithium cell that it had a higher cell voltage with a 50% or nominal voltage of 3.7v peaking at 4.2 and completely discharged around 2.7-2.9v. While a difference from fully charged to discharge of 1.5v doesn’t seem like a big difference, it becomes one when you have many battery cells in series to power larger appliances.
2018: Battery, as a Safe Fuel
Just like SONY bringing a commercialized cell to market, it also took Joule Case a few years for our invention to bring a truly safe stackable battery system to market. As mentioned, a single battery cell with a voltage difference of 1.5v does not have a massive electrical potential difference compared to 14 or 16 of these cells in series. That voltage range can have a potential difference of 21-24v. Many of us have probably seen the sparks created when you try to jump start a dead car battery, and that voltage difference is likely only 3-4 volts. Safely connecting and controlling these new battery modules with a higher voltage difference was a big leap in the technology and how to have a Battery Management System operate. And that was just the start for us in the innovation race of the Lithium battery in this new unique field of battery as a fuel.
By the end of 2019, Joule Case was achieving success demonstrating the effectiveness of using a stackable swappable battery system at live events, one of the most demanding markets. Typically relying on temporary, combustion fuel-based generation, Joule Case technology allowed live events and their operators the ability to add battery runtime in a similar way to combustion fuel generators.
Combustion generators need to constantly consume fuel when on, and even minimal consumption is not insignificant. A battery-based system consumes very little energy in a standby mode, making these extremely efficient to operate and leave ‘on’ until the event begins. In a short period of time, Joule Case was designing and building battery systems from 5-50kW and after providing power at Electric Daisy Carnival Las Vegas (EDC LV), one of the largest events in the world, we were asked to design a system that would power main stages. The request was a portable power system that could achieve at least 250kW and run a stage for at least 8 hours. That request came from a live events legend, Rutger Jansen.
2020: A Change, for Everyone
We said yes. If Insomniac, a subsidiary of Live Nation, was willing to make the switch to clean events and could see the value in our design of swappable batteries to make these events green and eliminate diesel, this was an important moment for the entire world. But this also required us to revisit our design of a stackable battery. Our smaller battery systems we designed in 2018 have a voltage difference of up to 24v when connected at different states of charge. Our new high voltage battery design needed to supply power up to 250kW and even more in the future. This would mean over 100 volts of potential difference. We needed to reimagine a battery, again.
Our prior innovation focused on balancing batteries in parallel. We had also imagined at the time the ability to increase the voltage with each additional battery and that this could be a means to handle the addition and subtraction of these systems and that was granted in our Multi-voltage Bus patent. But now we really needed to think about a large collection of batteries as fuel and that this fuel would need to be transformed into something nearly universally usable. That creation and invention was captured in our issued Modular Energy Storage System patent.
We delivered our first large scale system for demonstration to a nondescript warehouse on the edge of Las Vegas. It was there on February 13th 2020, we powered a massive festival stage placed on top of the road cases that house the lights, speakers, subs, and strobes for not just one day but over 2 days of loud, bright, and for the first time, clean stage. Then, the world took a pause.
2021: Power and Beyond
A lucky year in many terms. Dave DeMuro joined Joule Case and added to a fabulous career in battery innovations. Today we’re growing and changing the way our world uses and consumes energy. At the end of the year, the USPTO and many other international patent and trademark offices, recognized the modular energy storage system by granting its protection.
2022: A Return to Our History
Events began to slowly return to the world and our systems were having success in new markets for mobile users. Again, Joule Case was leading the clean energy revolution and delivering power and energy systems to customers happy to replace their generators. 2022 marked a major return of electric vehicles to the global market and, in particular, the United States. Our event partners began to ask if we had solutions to recharge these electric vehicles. Why? When vehicle manufacturers show off their new models, they take them around the country to show consumers, dealers, and members of the press to review these new products. The problem is, no one has infrastructure in place to charge 70 electric cars being driven all day for weeks at a time.
The design of our modular energy storage system has now been commercialized and turned into several products in our new Olympus class of products. Zeus and Atlas provide power and energy on an unprecedented scale, the type of scale that can power fleets of electric vehicles, massive stages, construction and mining sites, industrial facilities and in many cases portions of our electric grid.
2023: The Future, Today
Strain on our electric grid, intermittent renewable energy production, lack of transmission capacity, and the looming wave of EVs. Olympus is the pinnacle of the technology framework needed to solve the problems we face in the modernization of the electric grid and the vision to transform the simple battery into digital fuel. The storage format of Altas allows it to power EVs, capture solar, and it breaks free from the shackles of transmission lines.
Our goal was to find a way to make a battery power anything, on our quest we discovered Zeus and Atlas. The modern electrical user can truly see epic power that is infinitely flexible and future proof. Imagine what comes next.
Thank you John, your legacy, your hard work, and that of so many more continues on. Innovation and invention does not happen overnight, it is hard work, dedication, support—and a lot of luck. Godspeed on your journey.
- Alex Livingston